County's Board of Ethics takes aim at side gigs A proposed law calls for commissioners to drop jobs that conflict with their duty to the board. And that would affect more than half the commissioners.
Friday, January 24, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by A.D. Quig
Cook County’s Board of Ethics approved sweeping proposals that would severely limit commissioners from collecting an income outside their regular $85,000 annual salary.
The rules would bar county employees, officials and appointees from accepting or maintaining a job that is likely to “impair his or her independence of judgment in the exercise of official duties,” “create an appearance of impropriety” or hinder their ability to stick to their fiduciary duty to the county.
More than half of the county’s 17 members have a side gig, according to published reports and disclosures filed with the Cook County Clerk. Now commissioners will have to decide whether to further police themselves as both Chicago and the state move to crack down on lobbying, increase disclosure and limit outside employment for officials.
The Chicago City Council has banned aldermen from lobbying other governments for private clients and other elected officials from lobbying them for outside interests. They’ve also made disclosures around conflicts of interest related to council votes more thorough, in part due to federal scrutiny of Ald. Ed Burke's outside work as a property tax attorney.
A state task force is examining how to bolster transparency after federal scrutiny into state Rep. Luis Arroyo, Sen. Martin Sandoval, Sen. Tom Cullerton, Commonwealth Edison’s lobbying efforts and Mike McClain, a confidante of House Speaker Mike Madigan.
“Of course everybody has got a right to earn wages, but it seems to me that that right is not outweighed by the inherent conflicts of interest and appearance of corruption that arise when they take dual employment in the same space as their fiduciary duties as public officials,” said Juliet Sorensen, a Board of Ethics member that helped lead the rewrite effort.
County commissioners file a Statement of Economic Interests each spring. It’s a backward-looking document that asks for limited disclosures from the past year, including whether commissioners work for a company that does any business with the county; whether a commissioner was an “officer, director, associate, partner or proprietor or served in any advisory capacity” earning more than $1,200, or whether someone earned more than $5,000 rendering professional services for law, accounting, engineering, medicine, architecture, dentistry, or clinical psychology work.
But the filings do little to illuminate the actual work commissioners might do, or their total earnings or clients. For example, the records do not reflect Commissioners Brandon Johnson and Larry Suffredin’s roles with the Chicago Teachers Union. The Chicago Sun Times recently reported that between March 2018 and July 2019, the union paid $106,000 to Suffredin as a consultant and $103,000 to Johnson for community organizing. Johnson remains on staff.
Nor does it disclose Commissioners Peter Silvestri's and Deborah Sims’ ties to the gaming industry. WBEZ and ProPublica reported Sims has been a sales agent for Gold Rush Gaming since May of 2017, and that Silvestri also contracts with the company. He told reporters his work was not improper and involved “mainly asking people you know” if they wanted to install gaming machines in their bars and restaurants. Silvestri also recently recused himself from a cannabis vote because he has done zoning work for a cannabis company.
Commissioner Sean Morrison did not disclose his ownership of Morrison Security, where he is CEO. His clients have included the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Sysco, Northwestern University, Chicago Midway Airport, Twentieth Century Fox, Amsted Industries, Toys R Us and Staples, according to the company’s website.
Commissioners Johnson, Donna Miller, Alma Anaya, Bridget Degnen, Kevin Morrison, Stanley Moore and Luis Arroyo Jr. (the son of the former state representative) answered "N/A" throughout their filings.
Degnen and Morrison, both new to the board, campaigned on serving as full-time commissioners.
Among other disclosures from board members:
Dennis Deer disclosed his work as an officer at Phoenix Behavioral Health in 2018, and disclosed earning more than $5,000 for clinical psychology services.
Bill Lowry is a partner and managing shareholder at the law firm Nyhan Bambrick Kinzie & Lowry, which specializes in civil litigation, employment law, and workers’ compensation.
Sims disclosed earning more than $1,200 as a consultant at Silverfox 5 Corporation. The company does not have an online presence. The Illinois Secretary of State’s Office reports it is not in good standing, and that Sims’ campaign chairman and county aide, Aeria Charles, is listed as the agent.
John Daley is the longtime owner of Daley Insurance Brokerage.
Suffredin disclosed his ownership of his own law practice; serving “of counsel” at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, and working with corporations, partnerships, governmental units and unincorporated associations.
Jeff Tobolski disclosed his other position as the mayor of McCook. He, too, has been under federal scrutiny, but has not been charged.
Silvestri, who also serves on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, disclosed his own law practice and a sales role at PNS Consulting in Elmwood Park.
Scott Britton is founding partner at the law firm Ford & Britton, practicing insurance defense and commercial litigation.
Bridget Gainer is vice president of global public affairs for insurance brokerage giant Aon.
Commissioners with outside employment were not immediately available for comment, or declined to comment because they had not yet read the proposal.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's special legal counsel, Laura Lechowicz Felicione, had asked the Ethics Board to meet to discuss their proposed changes at the end of February or early March so it could have "sufficient time to review the proposed draft ordinance, engage in necessary legal research and offer suggestions for board consideration" earlier this week, but the board voted in favor of it anyway at its meeting yesterday.
Besides touching on outside employment, the board also proposed banning nepotism in hiring decisions countywide and requiring lobbyists to disclose if they have family working within the county.
Two of Preckwinkle’s appointees from the board made dramatic exits. As first reported by the Chicago Tribune, the chair was caught off-guard by Preckwinkle’s decision to not renew her term, and another resigned in protest.
“The president’s office has simply not had sufficient time to adequately review the technical issues with a legal lens that would amount to considerable change to existing policy,” spokesperson Nick Shields said in a statement. “This was not a collaborative process but rather an unfortunate public political stunt. . . .To be clear, the president has always championed transparency, accountability and ethics reforms and welcomes recommendations from the Ethics Board.”
Sorensen said the board “certainly never intended to surprise them or pull the wool over their eyes.” Asked if the proposal was a political stunt, she said, “Certainly not on the part of the Board of Ethics.”